The negotiating committee representing 400 nurses, pharmacists, social workers, lab scientists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, audiologists and other healthcare professionals at Steward Morton Hospital return to the bargaining table with hospital executives on Tuesday, May 24th in the hopes of reaching an agreement to avert a potential strike. Tuesday’s talks will be the second negotiation session since the Massachusetts Nurses Association members at the hospital voted overwhelmingly to authorize their bargaining committee to schedule a three-day strike if they see fit to do so.
Bogged down in sluggish contract talks since October 2021, MNA members at Morton voted on May 11 to authorize a three-day strike. Despite the fact that the contract was set to expire on October 31, 2021, hospital executives rebuffed MNA requests made since the Spring of 2021 to begin bargaining, agreeing to begin just two weeks before the expiration. The hospital’s behavior throughout the process has resulted in the union filing charges of unfair labor practice against the employer with the National Labor Relations Board on April 25th.
The charges state that through that date “the Employer has bargained in bad faith over several mandatory subjects of bargaining including the opening of the MORCAP [substance abuse treatment] unit; safety and security; and the effects of the departure of the Compass Medical Group on the terms and conditions of employment for bargaining unit [members].” Steward’s decision to cease making pension contributions is also referenced in the charge. With no explanation they have not made any contributions into the MNA members’ pension plan beyond the first two pay periods of 2022.
The executives had until then also categorically refused to discuss proposals to protect staff’s physical safety in the workplace amidst an increase in violence, worsened by social stresses of the pandemic, as well as the region’s growing substance abuse crisis and worsening shortage of psychiatric treatment facilities. At negotiations held last week, management for the first time engaged partially (albeit inadequately) on the security and MORCAP proposal
In April the MNA asked for the assistance of a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in the hopes of moving the process forward. On May 17, the first session held after the strike vote, there seemed to be an increased willingness, on the part of the executives, to more seriously engage with the nurses, healthcare professionals and the bargaining committee. This sense of willingness is a hopeful sign that negotiations on Tuesday can continue in a positive direction, while they consider all options, including the option of issuing the required 10-day notice of their intent to strike.
Background on Negotiations
In January, the nurses, healthcare professionals and community supporters held a highly successful rally that drew considerable public attention to the fact that Morton was becoming increasingly understaffed as many local caregivers were leaving Taunton to work at other area hospitals — including those in Boston.
Since then, Morton’s MNA members have been asking hospital executives to do everything possible to “keep healthcare professionals local” by providing the resources, wages and benefits they deserve and that are needed to retain to recruit staff.” That request has fallen on deaf ears, however, and the improvements needed to keep staff in Taunton have slipped further away.
Currently, there are more than 185 non-management staff vacancies including 55 RN vacancies (as of 5/19/2022).
Safety, Security, Health Insurance, Safe Staffing, and Need for Good-Faith Bargaining Also Drive Strike Authorization Vote
Numerous other issues also led to members’ overwhelming “yes” vote to authorize a three-day strike. Those include:
- Need for Improved Safety and Security. Long before the pandemic began, Taunton was grappling with a dramatic increase in addiction, homelessness, and the issues that accompany both. But the pandemic pushed many residents to their mental and emotional breaking points, and no starker place can this be seen than inside the walls of Morton Hospital. Last September a staffer was stabbed multiple times just outside the hospital.
The ED is generally beyond full capacity, with many patients waiting for days and sometimes more than a week for mental-health and addiction-recovery beds/resources. As patients and their families wait endlessly for beds and resources, emotions run high and stress bubbles over.
“We have asked Steward management to commit to a minimum number of security guards, that the areas surrounding the hospital be patrolled by security and that that they be well lit and monitored. We also proposed that security guards actually be available to protect people instead of being assigned to be hospital transporters.” said Jacqui Fitts, RN and chairperson of the MNA at Morton. On May 17the hospital responded to part of one element of the safety proposal, saying that upon request, a security officer shall provide any employee with an escort to their car, provided the staff recognize that the employee may be required to wait for an available officer. They again rejected the other security proposals from the healthcare professionals.
Fitts also pointed out that Morton’s pediatric ED patients are especially vulnerable, despite promises Steward made years ago when it shuttered Morton’s in-patient pediatric unit.
“When Steward closed our pediatric unit, we were told that children would never co-mingle with adult patients in the ED, that there would be distinct space and staff for pediatric ED patients, Fitts explained. “That was an empty promise to the community which was quickly abandoned. Now our youngest mental health patients, about 5 years old, are placed alongside our adult acute psychiatric patients in crisis. It is our job as nurses to protect the patients from trauma, not witness its creation. So give us the tools – the appropriate staff and security – to keep everyone safe.”
- Need to Negotiate Safe Staffing in the New “MORCAP” Unit. Morton’s recently partially opened “MORCAP unit,” a 32-Bed, level-4 substance use disorders treatment unit, is a vitally important resource, but “it needs to be safely and appropriately staffed if it is to succeed” said Jen Roderiques, RN and Vice-Chair of the MNA at Morton. “Staffing it incorrectly will lead to its failure. We cannot afford that risk; negotiating the safe staffing of the unit is essential.”
- Steward has not provided assistance to staff at Morton who lost their families’ physicians with no notice upon Steward’s decision to disqualify Compass doctors from their employees’ health plan. This left hundreds of staff and dependents without access to primary care physicians and specialists.
- And Steward, since the second pay period of 2022, has failed to make payments into the members’ pension plan, an issue that must be immediately, and retroactively, resolved.